It is very simple. You only need to do a search for the main keywords of your category and note the ads that appear. Then you start breaking the info down in segments to simplify the data intake:
a. Promise, answers the question “why should i click and come to your site”. For example such promises could be “free”, “low price”, “top quality”, “top variety”, etc.
b. Support for the promise, aims to provide credibility to the claimed promise. For example, “lowest price guarantee” could be a support for”lowest prices” or “30,000 designs to choose from” could be a support for a ‘variety’ claim. It is surprising that most ads fail to provide any sort of support for their claim.
So after noting down search ads for your industry’s main keywords, you now have:
-who are your competitors
-what is their USP (promise)
-what is their USP support
At this point, it could be helpful to plot what you got. You need to come up with two axes. Ideally one axis should be functional, e.g. price, and the other more sentimental, e.g. ‘trust’ or ‘leadership’. Maybe you should keep both axis more functional, eg price vs. variety or speed. These decisions could be guided by your findings via the competition mapping process on the Google result page. Once you have the axis, you plot all the players on the graph and look for openings. This will highlight opportunities in the market.
Next step is to come up with different concepts that could eventually be turned into brand positioning. These concepts could be ‘original thoughts on what you think matters in your industry or even ‘stolen’ from competitor’s. All concepts should somehow answer the question “why should people buy products such as the ones you are selling”. Say you are selling sports shoes, do people buy shoes based on features, design, price, specialization, brand etc.? If you think all of the above could apply, you write two texts ads for each one trying each time to make it as focused on that concept as possible. You should do two ads because copywriting plays a role. Some ads are more effective than others because they are better written. So you write two ads and look at their combined performance when comparing the concepts between them. The concept whose ads exhibit the highest CTR is the winning concept. This is the concept that engages consumers most when it comes to searching and buying your products.
Note that you need to let the ads run until you get enough data to give you statistical confidence. This could take weeks depending on your Adwords budget and the search traffic your keywords get. But in my view it is worth the wait as the USP is something to keep for a long long time.
Second note, test the concepts for as many different AdWords campaigns as possible. By AdWords campaigns i mean set of keywords, i.e. consumer’s states of mind. When a consumer searches for a competitor brand, then this means that the user is already in an advanced state where he knows about the particular brand and has probably also has decided that this is his favorite. Different case when a user has searched for your brand. Or totally different case when a user searches for a generic keyword such as “sports shoes” vs. something much more precise such as “running shoes for hard terrain”.
If a concept proves to be the big winner then that’s great. If this particular concept is over-populated with competitors claiming to capture it, for example this is common for the “cheap prices” concept or “best taste” concept for food & beverage industries, then you can do a 2nd phase of testing where you combine each concept with the winning, i.e. cheap & convenient, cheap & choice, cheap & fast, etc.
A final 3rd phase could be to test which is the best support for the winning concept. You could go about it the same way. List down different alternatives for supporting your claim, eg cheapest because we have the biggest volume, cheapest because we have the widest choice, low price guarantee, etc., prepare ads for each and so on.
So now you know who your competitors are, what is each one’s promise, how the competition environment is mapped out and what consumers respond most too. Now you are in a good position to take an educated decision on what your brand’s USP should be.
Final note is that you should not necessarily choose the winning concept. It should depend also on the openings demonstrated on the competition mapping graph and of course your brand’s own DNA. For example, if you offer the most expensive product in the market, then selecting the “low price” concept just because it proved to be the best performing won’t work.